In 2015, I wrote about the first canine influenza (CI) outbreak in the United States, in the Chicago area. At the time, I emphasized a few key facts about this disease, which I will review here:
- CI is a highly contagious viral disease which causes upper respiratory symptoms (cough, sneezing, nasal discharge, etc.). Symptoms range from mild to serious, though the diseases is rarely fatal and many dogs do not require medical treatment.
- There are two varieties of CI, H3N2 and H3N8. Neither can infect humans.
- There are several vaccines available to protect against CI. Some are specific to one strain, others can provide some protection against both strains. There is some evidence to support safety and efficacy for these vaccines, however the information available is limited. Some have been conditionally licensed, meaning that they have been approved with less than the usual required research evidence in order to allow a faster response to the threat of CI outbreaks. Whether or not a dog should be vaccinated, and with which vaccine, depends on the risk of exposure, the health of the dog, and a variety of individual factors that should be discussed with your veterinarian. There is no evidence to support claims sometimes made by anti-vaccine activists of serious harm or lack of efficacy for these vaccines.
- There is also no evidence to support claims that alternative methods, such as homeopathy, nutritional strategies, herbs or supplements, or other methods are effective in preventing or treating CI. Some, such as homeopathy, clearly are not effective. Others have not been properly tested.
A number of CI cases have been confirmed recently in Florida, which has renewed concern, and media coverage, regarding this disease. This, inevitably, has led to increased exposure for proponents of pseudoscientific and anti-science perspectives. Fortunately, there are a number of reliable sources of information about canine influenza that I encourage dog owners to make use of:
Unfortunately, because CI occurs in outbreaks it is the sort of disease that encourages hysteria and panic. This tends to lead to a proliferation of misinformation about the disease itself and about prevention and treatment. The usual opponents of science-based medicine and vaccination tend to come out of the woodwork to oppose or denigrate legitimate prevention and treatment methods and to promote unscientific or untested alternatives. The mainstream media is often unable to distinguish between legitimate expertise and ill-informed passion on medical topics, and so advocates of pseudoscience often get opportunities to spread their misinformation.
This morning, for example, a report on CI was broadcast on the popular CBS Morning News program. In a classic example of false balance, the reporter interviewed not only veterinary medical personnel and experts at the University of Florida but also an anti-vaccine activist from one of the most extreme and unreliable sources of veterinary medical misinformation available, Dogs Naturally magazine. This kind of uncritical reporting of medical issues misleads viewers and supports claims and fears that have no legitimate scientific basis.
I have contacted the network and the reporter involved to point out the danger of this kind of false balance in medical reporting. Public response to such reporting has been very successful in improving coverage of some scientific issues, such as climate change, so I encourage anyone interested in fact-based public debate about science to watch for this issue and contact local and media and journalists to call attention to it whenever possible. Here, for example, is the response I provided to the CBS Morning News:
I was deeply disappointed with this report on canine influenza. In the course of this report, you interviewed Dana Scott of Dogs Naturally magazine, who suggested that vaccination for canine influenza was unnecessary and driven by profit rather than medical considerations. Ms. Scott has no medical or scientific qualifications or expertise. The web site and magazine she is affiliated with promote extreme anti-science positions and medical quackery that endangers the health of veterinary patients.
Hopefully, you would not interview an astrologer to “balance” the opinions of an astrophysicist like Neil Degrasse Tyson. I presume you would also not solicit the views of proponent of witchcraft or faith healing to balance the views of your own medical correspondents. Interviewing Ms. Scott and promoting her extremist and unscientific views is equally irresponsible and a disservice to your viewers, who may be misled into believing her views have some scientific legitimacy.
The decision whether or not to vaccinate for canine influenza and which vaccine to use should be based on exposure risk and scientific evidence regarding the relative risks and benefits of vaccination. The irrational and unsupported views of anti-vaccine activists should have no role in such a decision.
As a regular viewer of your program, I am now obliged to question the validity of your reporting on other areas in which I do not have expertise since you have failed so dramatically to present accurate information on a subject about which I am familiar. I hope you will take responsibility for this mistake and clearly remind your viewers that the consensus among experts and scientists is not consistent with the unsupported and extremist views of Ms. Scott.